Read all about it; it's in the movies


The 1950s were a time of great change for the movies: greater use of color, the inception of wide-screen Cinemascope, the influence of Method actors and directors and increasingly more self-conscious approaches to style and form. James Harvey's Movie Love in the Fifties (Knopf, 448 pages, $35), is a brilliant and original book that examines this period of American social history through its movies.

Many of the traditional forms -- Musicals, Westerns, war films, family comedies and mystery films -- remained strong in the 1950s, but Harvey explains how they were modified and subverted by certain directors and actors who wanted not to just entertain audiences but to challenge and astonish them.

Harvey primarily chronicles the work of the directors Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, Robert Siodmak and Orson Welles to dramatize these profound changes. The work of the actors Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Robert Mitchum, Kim Novak, Doris Day, Janet Leigh and Marilyn Monroe also is treated in depth.

Harvey takes a close look at Brando's work in On the Waterfront (which changed movie acting forever), at Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and at Novak and James Stewart in Vertigo. He also examines lesser-known films such as Max Ophuls' The Reckless Moment, Ray's Bitter Victory and Siodmak's Christmas Holiday.

Harvey describes the progression from 1940s film noir and femme fatales to 1950s glossy domestic melodrama and bland female leads. This is a sophisticated book that film enthusiasts should not miss.

It is a familiar scene at movie awards shows: The producer of the winning film pays homage to the creative process as he accepts the statue on behalf of the entire enterprise. It's the crowning moment for the person responsible for maintaining the balance between art and commerce, but as the longtime producer Art Linson proves in What Just Happened? (Bloomsbury, 208 pages, $24.95), the life of a film producer is filled with calamities, ego trips, bad decisions and hilarious misadventures.

Linson, who credits include The Untouchables, Heat, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Fight Club, writes with a scalpel that spares nobody, including himself. Much of the book revolves around the evolution and production of two recent Linson films: The Edge and Great Expectations.

The process of casting The Edge includes Dustin Hoffman discussing ankle hair loss (and never discussing the film), writer David Mamet trying to control his temper in front of a studio executive and actor Alec Baldwin, who after being cast, throws a fit over having to shave his beard. Linson's campaign to convince studio executives that Gwyneth Paltrow had enough talent and a big enough chin for Great Expectations is hilarious in retrospect.

Because neither film was very successful, the book describes an experience familiar to many producers. Says Linson: There were too many lawyers, too many marketing stiffs, and not enough creative types for this kind of dream machinery to work.

Film critic Roger Ebert is best known for Siskel & Ebert (now Ebert & Roeper), the TV show with its famous thumbs-up and thumbs-down reviews. He is also a serious film scholar and a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper critic whose new book, The Great Movies (Broadway, 432 pages, $27.50), takes a fresh look at 100 landmarks of the first century of cinema. Despite his stated dislike of lists, Ebert has created his version of the Best 100, which reflects his sensibilities, formed primarily during the 1960s film generation.

Ebert's essay on each movie is based on a recent viewing as well its place in film history. He includes obvious choices such as Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Casablanca, On the Waterfront, The 400 Blows, but it is his unusual picks that elevate this book. His pieces on A Hard Day's Night, which starred the Beatles, the basketball documentary Hoop Dreams and Disney's Pinocchio are inspiring.

In writing about Body Heat, he responds to critic Pauline Kael's negative review point by point and his essay on Fellini's La Dolce Vita chronicles how his opinion changed after each viewing, so that by the fifth time he finally understood the director's purpose. It's that kind of dedication and depth that distinguishes this work.

Pauline Kael, a movie critic who never saw a film more than once, was arguably the most influential critic of her generation. From the mid-1960s until 1991, her movie reviews (primarily in The New Yorker) and her books established a level of unmatched literary brilliance and social insight.

Noted critic Francis Davis' slim volume Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (Da Capo, 128 pages, $18), was recorded just weeks before Kael died in September 2001. Davis' own knowledge of film and the sheer exuberance and scope of Kael's ideas and opinions make this fast and engaging reading.

Kael decries the pack mentality of most current movie criticism, and she despairs that smaller, more lighthearted movies have little chance in the current marketplace. She reiterates her enthusiasm for much of director Robert Altman's work and continues to champion movies she loves that no one else noticed or liked. She finds some of the most celebrated films of the 1990s (Schindler's List, Silence of the Lambs, American Beauty) overrated and overbearing.

In the end, what emerges most is Kael's integrity. She never lowered her standards or lost interest in seeking the best. For her, nothing matched the experience of seeing movies and no one has ever written about it better.

Robert Mitchum was one of Hollywood's most enduring stars whose physical grace, drooping sleepy eyes and deceptively laid-back acting style helped define the post-World War II anti-hero persona. In Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care (St. Martin's, 608 pages, $17.95), Lee Server's exhaustive and unvarnished look at Mitchum, the contradictory elements of the actor's keen intelligence, generosity, unsatisfied wanderlust, calculated indifference and self-destructive drunkenness come together in a first-rate biography.

Server is is at his best examining Mitchum's professional and personal behavior. The actor hated pretense (when asked if he studied the Stanislavsky method he replied, "No, but I've studied the Smirnoff method") and was considered the consummate professional. He disliked Out of the Past co-star Kirk Douglas, was simpatico with director John Huston and found surprising common ground with Charles Laughton in Night of the Hunter.

Mitchum's popularity crested in 1962 with The Longest Day, and for the next decade he made one bad movie after another, turning down the leads in The Wild Bunch and The French Connection. The 1970s were better years with gems like The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Farewell My Lovely but the last portion of the book is dominated by Mitchum's decline into unstable behavior. But he never stopped working, and that, Server points out, is part of the Mitchum mystique. By the late 1990s, his career was more critically acclaimed than at any point in his life. After one last Pall Mall, Mitchum, 79, died of lung cancer on June 30, 1997.

Paul Moore is deputy managing editor / news at The Sun. He has just updated his list of the best 250 English-language films of the 20th century.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad